Published in the Trumansburg Free Press (June 8, 2005)


Land & People
Names & Places

by Bill Chaisson 

It is well known that the name "Trumansburg" is derived from a 19th century government officialís inability to read the handwriting of Abner Treman. I have told this story many times to visitors who start out assuming that Harry Truman had something to do with the town's name. President Truman is so strongly associated with Missouri, however, that few people think that he was actually born in here. The existence of "Truman Street" seems to add further credence to the presidential connection.  But, of course, there is none.

Standardized spelling in English is a Victorian and Progressive Era project of the late 19th century and, frankly, still doesn't seem to have entirely caught on. Abner Treman died in 1823 and during his lifetime spelled his own name variously as "Treman", "Tremain", and "Tremaine", and other members of the family apparently wrote is as "Tremayne" or even "Truman". The relationship between strict spelling and literacy was not a simple one in Treman's day and before. Variant spellings of the same word can be found a single manuscript or even printed books.

According to ancestry.com, "Tremain" is a variant of "Tremaine", which is Cornish habitational name from any of various places in Cornwall--southwest England--so named. The name is built from two Cornish roots, "tre", which means 'homestead' or 'settlement', and "men", which means 'stone'.  (Interestingly, 'Truman" is probably derived from an East Midlands--north central England--name "Trueman", which means what it looks like it means.)

Last or surnames were historically acquired to distinguish a person from another with the same first or "Christian" name. Even within a small village there might be more than one man named "John" (which means "God is gracious"). So one John might be called "John the fletcher"óthe village arrow-makeróand the other "John the cooper"óthe local barrel-maker.  Or, like the Tremaines, a surname could describe where they lived. As people began to travel more widely their surnames could reflect more encompassing places, like the name of the village or region from which they hailed.  

Another well-known Trumansburg surname is  

"Halsey". Ancestry.com suggests that, like Tremaine it is a habitational name and it may be derived from  Alsa in Stanstead Mountfitchet, Essex. Another possible source is Halsway in Somerset, named from Old English "hals", meaning 'neck', and "weg" meaning  'way' or 'road'.

Of course, this derivation of names from places exists in other languages outside of the British Isles.  The ostensibly British name "Camp" is actually Dutch (also van den Camp) and North German, and is from "de camp", or 'the field' (from Latin "campus" or 'plain'), hence a topographic name or a status name denoting a small farmer or peasant.  This is a derivation that likely would not have pleased Herman Camp. The Pease family may have been more pleased to know that their name connoted "a seller of peas".

Hundreds of years after acquiring their name from one place, a family can give it back to another. In the rural areas around Trumansburg you can sometimes still find names on the mailboxes that match the road signs. Powell Road in Covert comes to mind. Covert itself is named for its founding family. But in the village of Trumansburg the families that gave their names to the streets no longer live along them.

There are two McLallen homesteads on McLallen Street, but they are no longer occupied by McLallens. There are no Strowbridges on Strowbridge Street, a name that is derived from "strawbridge", an actual historical structure in Hatherleigh, Devon. And there are no Bradleys on Bradley Street. When that surname is of English origin, like many of the others I have cited it is a habitational name from any of the many places throughout England named Bradley, from Old English "bra¯d" or 'broad' and "le¯ah" or 'woodland clearing'.

My own surname is an 19th century misspelling of "Chiasson".  A Chiasson is a person from Chiasso, a small town in the Torcino region of Switzerland, a valley that extends southward into northern Italy. A family geneaologist, David Chiasson, has traced the emigration of our ancestors from that valley through Provence west to the northern slopes of the Pyrennes near Lourdes by the mid 15th century. But how did the Swiss town get its name? Unlike Trumansburg, it isn't called after its founder. The adjacent lake, Lago di Chiasso, is apparently distinguished by a particular mineral that permeates its waters. David Chiasson is still trying to get the details out of the Swiss.

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Last revised:  June 6, 2005